Q&A: Ken Burns, documentary filmmaker

Ken Burns’ PBS documentary series titled “The Dust Bowl” will premiere at 34th annual Mountainfilm, which runs from Friday through Monday, May 25–28, in Telluride.

One of the most well-known documentary filmmakers of the past 20 years, Ken Burns has become synonymous with an archival style and a passion for historical and environmental topics.

His latest project, a PBS documentary series titled “The Dust Bowl,” premieres at the 34th annual Mountainfilm, which runs Friday through Monday, May 25–28, in Telluride.

The festival highlights environmental, cultural and social issues through films, presentations and other events.

For information about tickets and a festival schedule, go to mountainfilm.org.

“The Dust Bowl” is a six-hour film that will be shown in its entirety during Mountainfilm, and in two parts in November on PBS.

With “The Dust Bowl” complete, Burns has shifted his attention to other projects. The famous filmmaker took time from his busy schedule for a phone interview about his love of Colorado, inspration for film topics and the special place in his heart for baseball.

Melinda Mawdsley: Thank you so much for your time. How often do you try to get out this way?

Ken Burns: Every year. I have not missed the Telluride Film Festival at Labor Day since 1990. I’ve been on the board of directors for the last decade. If I didn’t (live) in New Hampshire, I’d live in Telluride.

Mawdsley: You are such an advocate for the this area’s scenic outdoors, and thanks, by the way, for writing the forward to The Daily Sentinel’s “Monumental Majesty: 100 years of Colorado National Monument” book. Where are some of your favorite places to go in this area?

Burns: Arches, the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, Mesa Verde National Park, Longs Peak. I go to Telluride a week before the (Telluride Film Festival) to hike, but not strenuous.

Mawdsley: Why make “The Dust Bowl”?

Burns: As in all the films we’ve worked on, it’s a good story. And, in this case, it’s a helluva good story. It’s the worst man-made ecological disaster in American history.

Mawdsley: How long did it take to complete?

Burns: We worked on this for several years.

Mawdsley: Was it difficult to find people willing to talk about the Dust Bowl?

Burns: It was a huge effort, but that’s what we do for a living. I first sent out appeals on PBS stations in the Dust Bowl region and asked for people who had photographs and memories, anything. We sifted through hundreds and hundreds of responses and filmed about three dozen people. Our film features two-and-a-half dozen of them.

Mawdsley: How was the quality of the old photos people had? Were the memories accurate and vivid?

Burns: It was excellent. A lot of people think because something takes place 70 years ago or more that somehow memory is distant. All memory is present. When a man breaks down talking about the death of a sibling from dust pneumonia during filming, it’s as searing as if it had happened yesterday.

Mawdsley: Are there lessons to be learned from the Dust Bowl?

Burns: First and foremost, this is a human story. As a human story, it’s filled with great drama, but also hubris and folly. There is a great, great story in that we ignore these actions that we human beings take at our peril. People live in the moment. They get greedy. Before the Dust Bowl, we turned over 30 million acres of land that should have been grasses. And when the rains don’t come, as they inevitably will not.

Mawdsley: Where do you get your ideas for your documentaries? Not just this series but the others? You’ve made movies about jazz, baseball, national parks.

Burns: I’ve been doing films for 35 years in American history, and I have thousands of ideas. There’s just kind of a chemistry and relation with some.

Mawdsley: What’s up next for you?

Burns: We just finished a film going to the Cannes Film Festival called “The Central Park Five.” It’s about five black and Hispanic men convicted for the heinous Central Park jogger rape that they didn’t commit. (The men were acquitted in 2002, more than 10 years after the crime.) We’re also finishing a huge series on the Roosevelts, doing a biography on Jackie Robinson, and we’re shooting a big series on Vietnam.

Mawdsley: Speaking of baseball. It’s baseball season here, and you are really into baseball, right?

Burns: It’s still the national pastime. It’s still the greatest game invented. This is the only game played in a park where the ball goes out of the park, where a human being scores instead of a ball.

Mawdsley: You must be a Red Sox fan living in New Hampshire.

Burns: Red Sox fan. New England is a region very cohesive, very small. We’ve got great traditions in our sports teams.

Mawdsley: Thanks again for your time. I’m sorry you won’t be at Mountainfilm this year.

Burns: I’m just so bummed out. I’ve got a real conflict, and I’m very sorry I won’t be there.


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